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Melis Coady Reports From South Denali Groundbreaking

by Phillip Manning ~ August 19th, 2013

Story by KTNA’s Melis Coady.

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On Friday August 16th, many local, state, federal, and private-sector officials gathered in a small dirt pull off at mile 135 of the George parks highway for a ground breaking ceremony for what they hope will become the South Denali Visitor Center Complex of Denali State Park. The park is an over 325,000-acre wilderness landscape located half way between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Its western boundary is shared with its much larger neighbor, Denali National Park and Preserve. Denali National Park Superintendent Don Striker spoke this weekend at the ground-breaking ceremony for site development of South Side Denali State Park facilities. He stressed how important he thought the project was.

“This project represents the epicenter of outdoor recreation in Alaska.  I really think that’s how big it is, and I think this is the example that will show us that we have to think regionally.  After all, Anchorage is not competing with Fairbanks.  Alaska is competing with New Zealand and Hawaii.”

The ceremony was in celebration of funding secured for phase one of what they hope will be a two-phase process implemented over the next four years. In it’s first phase, they will construct a 1.5-mile access road to a new campground, interpretive trail system, and ranger station and maintenance facility.  Once additional funding is secured they hope in the projects second phase to extend the road several more miles to a bench below Curry ridge where they will build a visitor center and an upper interpretive trail system.
The sixteen shovels and hard hats laid out for the event was strong evidence of this multi-agency effort that has been almost 4 decades in the making.

“Man, this has been forty years…forty years…Jiminny Christmas.”
That was Ben Ellis, Director of Parks and Recreation. He thanked all those present for their cooperation and contributions to the project whose progress had been slow and tenuous until this last April when the state received the private land donation of 104 acres by United Companies Inc., LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sea Lion Corp., the village corporation for Hooper Bay. The donated land is valued at $1 million dollars.  Hooper Bay is located 582 miles from Denali State Park. Myron Naneng, president and chief executive officer of Sea Lion Corp, was present at the ceremony and said that his village was proud to be part of the plan to open up for the future development of a South Denali Visitor Center.

“I think this is a moment in history, where a lot people never thought that people in villages can work with people in urban areas, so keep that in mind.  We did something together.”
Naneng said that he hopes one day school children from Hooper Bay will come to Denali State Park, enjoy views of Mt. McKinley and be proud of their village’s contribution. The benefit to the village corporation will also improve access to its adjacent private lands for future tourism-related development.  Princess cruises made a large contribution to the project by paying Matanuska-Electric Association $1,000,000 to help extend the existing utility corridor north from Trapper Creek both to it’s own hotel and to the new Denali State Park access road. State Senate President Charlie Huggins pointed out that electricity extension would benefit more than just the state park.

“Think about the benefits.  That isn’t just South Denali.  MEA extending the grid to this location, people will benefit from that.”
Citizens in the surrounding area are already voicing concerns about issues such as possible restricted snow machine access and land management strategies that help this scenic corridor retain it’s wilderness character. Talkeetna resident Brian Okonek was one of a handful of private residents at the ceremony to both celebrate the groundbreaking but remind land managers and representatives of the need for more than just money to see the proposed site plan through completion.

“Denali State Park is a gem in the state park system.  It’s a great attraction.  It’s got the most spectactular views of the Alaska Range from anywhere.  It’s got wonderful recreational opportunities from cross-country skiing, hiking, rafting, hunting, snowmobiling.  There’s lots and lots of different activities.  This visitor facility has the potential of attracting hundreds of thousands of people, and when you get that many people in any one place it takes a tremendous amount of management to protect the very reason why the visitor’s center is being proposed to be built here.”
The road, campground and electrical extension are scheduled to be completed by late summer or fall of 2014.

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